Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 77

The Russian government has launched its long-anticipated attempt to reassert control over Russia’s eighty-nine regions and republics, at the expense of the governors and presidents who currently have essentially unlimited power in the territories they administer. On April 11, Russia’s’ Constitutional Court affirmed the right of regional prosecutors to challenge laws promulgated at regional level (Russian agencies, April 11). From now on, any prosecutor will have the right to ask the courts to determine whether a law promulgated at the regional level is in accord with federal law. The courts will have the power to declare a republic or oblast law to be in violation of federal law and, accordingly, invalidate it until it is brought into line. Further, the decisions of local courts may be challenged through the Constitutional Court. According to Sergei Markov, director of the Center for Political Studies in Moscow, several intermediate steps will be required before the Constitutional Court’s April 11 decision becomes effective in practice. “The federal center will have both to weaken the influence of the local authorities over the prosecutor’s offices and to subordinate local governments to itself,” Markov predicted. “The federal authorities will also have to reassert control over the courts and other federal agencies,” he added, noting that the battle for control of the Interior Ministry is likely to be the hardest of all (Russian agencies, April 11).

At the same time, President-elect Putin’s team appears to be preparing another significant step, this one aimed at Russia’s ethnically based republics, over which the Kremlin’s influence is weakest. The Kremlin does not appear overly confident that it will win this particular battle. So it is trying, as it has done before, to conceal its actions by using as surrogates those regional leaders whose positions are weak at home and who thus need the support of the federal center. The Constitutional Court is due shortly to issue a ruling in a case brought by Semyen Zubakin, chief of administration of the Altai Republic, who is complaining about the restrictions placed on his prerogatives by the local parliament (Russian agencies, April 12). The Altai Republic is one of only a handful of Russia’s twenty-one ethnically based republics where power is not centralized in the hands of the chief executive. Instead, relations between the chief executive, Zubakin, and the republic legislature have turned into open confrontation, which the parliament is at present winning. The reason is that, under local legislation adopted in 1997, the republic’s parliament voted itself the right to sack the head of administration, while ensuring that he enjoyed no corresponding right to dissolve parliament.

Zubakin appears to be acting as the Kremlin’s henchman in this task because he is challenging not only the self-ordained right of the Altai Republic parliament, but also the sovereignty provision in the republic’s constitution. Zubakin is arguing that this provision effectively turns the Russian Federation into a confederation and that it therefore violates the Russian constitution.

If the Constitutional Court finds in Zubakin’s favor, its decision will have repercussions far beyond the borders of the Altai Republic. This is because the constitutions of the majority of Russia’s republics contain provisions on sovereignty which could be declared unconstitutional.

All the same, the new form of center-periphery relations which the Putin leadership seems to want to introduce looks more like a “pyramid” than the “vertical” of which both President-elect Putin and Russia’s regional leaders have so often spoken. The Kremlin seems unwilling to enter into direct conflict with regional leaders and may prefer to offer them some kind of deal: If they will forgo some of the (often financial) power they have informally appropriated, they may in return retain full control over local government bodies on their territories. Putin may already have sounded out some of the regional governors. Saratov Governor Dmitri Ayatskov attracted attention with his recent statement that “The next elections for the State Duma will take place in 2003, and we shall not elect a new president until 2004; now, therefore, it is time to do away with the rest of the elections [in Saratov Oblast].” According to Ayatskov, municipal elections are inappropriate since 90 percent of the regions in Saratov Oblast are dependent on financial subsidies. Therefore, their self-proclaimed right to self-government is not based in reality and should not be pandered to; acting President Putin, Ayatskov hinted, shares his view (Saratovskie vesti, April 10).